As I write I'm under a blanket with a warming cup of soup at my side. The temperature has dropped and snow is predicted. The Hostal Rua in Arzua feels like the Marie Celeste. The owner opened the door, showed us our room, asked us to leave the keys on the table in the morning and left quickly. He had to get home. It is the eve of the Feast of the Kings, a fiesta almost more important than Christmas to Spaniards. In days gone by it was tomorrow presents were given. Nowadays they are given at Christmas and on 6th January when the arrival of the three kings with their gifts for the baby Jesus is commemorated. Tonight children large and small will put out their shoes and hang up stockings in the hope they will be filled with presents. The tradition is that gifts are for children who have been good in the last year. Bad children receive lumps of coal. Not to worry every confectioner sells coal made of candy!
On TV as we hang our own stockings up to dry are reports of the magnificent Cavalcade of the Kings which takes places in cities, towns and villages throughout Spain. In Madrid more than 500,000 people are lining the streets as the parade passes with gigantic statues of the three Kings. Millions of sweets are thrown into the crowd from the magnificent mobile displays.
The scenes from Madrid are quite different from the Camino Frances today. We set out alone at 9am when it was light. It was very cold but the air was clear. We set a good pace both for warmth and because of the length of the etapa. Our spirits were high. Sun was forecast later in the morning. Soon after leaving Palas de Rei we encountered a section of Camino which was badly flooded. There was no way around. There were 20 or so stepping stones protruding from the water but they looked like the middle section of a bridge when both ends were missing. We commanded the water to part in the name of Santiago and when it didn't we then slid and slithered our way over using sticks for balance and to test the depth as we picked out sunken stones on which to tread. We had to make sure the water never reached the top of our boots. At last we were over, with our feet still dry.
From then on the route revealed its winter beauty. We walked along forest paths lined with trees wearing overcoats of ivy and moss. Their fallen leaves still carpeted the path before us in every hue of brown imaginable. The skies were blue and the sun broke through. This was perfect walking.
All of the bars were closed although we called in at one or two open and well heated albergues. They stood empty waiting the invasion the Holy Year will bring. But still no other pilgrims.
Thoroughly enjoying the day we walked along the path beside the main road on the approach to Melide. Cars raced past. Suddenly there was a screech of brakes. A car stopped and a familiar head appeared at the open window. It was Maria the journalist who had encountered us in Triacastela. She had easily recognised Little and Large striding along the roadside. "How have you got on?" She asked. "It has been wonderful", we replied. The route is beautiful, the facilities for pilgrims are excellent, the sun is shining and we are two days from Santiago." We enthused. "No problems?" She persisted. " Just a little flooding" we answered. "You see I've been sent out on a different story," she explained, "this time I'm looking for bad experiences on the Camino, the ugly side of things." From our reaction she could tell we were the wrong people to ask. "Maria," we tried to explain, "it isn't like that, you need to pack a rucksack and walk the route to see that." We bade her farewell and set off into Melide with me silently wishing her editor gets stockings and shoes full of real coal tonight. But the encounter started a debate - how is it possible for people to understand the wonderful benefits of the pilgrimage to soul, mind and body if they don't experience it? As if to prove the point 15 minutes later we were welcomed into a small bar. We were starving and cold. Within a few minutes boiling caldo was on the table followed by piping hot braised lamb shanks. The delicious meat just fell from the bone. The people at the bar warmly wished us "buen viaje" when we left.
Fully restored we set a good pace for the afternoon. We continued on wide forest avenues. At one point I turned and there was another pilgrim right behind me. This was Jack from Holland. His English was perfect. He had started at St Jean de Pied Port 4 weeks and three days ago. He was lean, fit, and walking fast. Still vexed by the encounter with Maria I was going to ask him if he had experienced any bad or ugly aspects to his Camino. I simply asked him how it had been and he positively glowed.
All of this was still going round in my head when we began the long climb into Arzua. As I panted to the top of the surprisingly sustained incline I realised that my exertions had erased all thoughts of negative questions. I looked back down at the hill and it said, "that's what I'm here for. Buen Camino."
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device